For Marc McGinnis, Sept. 11, 2001, started as a normal Tuesday.
Volunteering at the Jehovah’s Witnesses headquarters in Brooklyn, the 21-year-old was doing the same janitorial work his business now does in Chehalis.
A life-long Jehovah’s Witness, McGinnis said that morning in New York City reminded him of the Pacific Northwest. It was cooler, a departure from the extreme summers and winters he was shocked by in the Northeast.
He was cleaning the rooftop area of a Jehovah’s Witness residence hall when the first plane hit. From his vantage point, there was only smoke. They thought it was a fire.
“All of us were discussing amongst ourselves what a shame it was and how expensive the repairs were going to be, hoping people were evacuating and getting out safe,” he told The Chronicle this week.
But then things changed.
Word made it to the rooftop that it was a plane that collided with the World Trade Center. As a second one approached, McGinnis and his coworkers looked on.
“I had just enough time to reach out and touch the person next to me and say ‘look.’ And that’s when it just flew right into the south tower,” he said. “And the explosion was like somebody just smacking their hands as loud as they could right by your ear.”
That’s when they knew something bigger was going on. Emotions changed from sadness to fear. McGinnis called his parents. Some colleagues hid in closets, unsure of what would happen next.
Saturday is the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the deadliest terrorist attack in United States history, when four planes were hijacked by Al Qaeda-linked terrorists. In total, almost 3,000 people were killed, triggering major anti-terrorism initiatives in the U.S.
The resulting War on Terror would claim hundreds of thousands more lives.
Back at the Jehovah’s Witness headquarters, McGinnis recalls papers floating down to the ground, debris and smoke pluming as sirens wailed. As part of the fire brigade for the campus, McGinnis blocked out any panic from his system, instead working to evacuate his friends from the rooftop.
He was locking doors and posting signs back on the roof when he heard a deep rumbling sound. The first tower began to collapse.
“It was something that was very traumatic to be able to be one of I think the few people that actually witnessed that first-hand, versus watching it on the news. The world kind of changed at that point,” he said.
When McGinnis flew to New York, just over a year before the attacks, his parents walked him to his gate.
But coming home in 2003, that was no longer an option — just one small ripple effect of the attacks still seen today.
At a campus-wide gathering after the initial attacks, Jehovah’s Witness leaders addressed the some 3,000 volunteers at the headquarters. There, the group was encouraged to not be frozen by fear, but rather to help the city materially and spiritually.
As hoards of New Yorkers walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, away from the wreckage, McGinnis helped open up the headquarter’s lobbies, welcoming in survivors and first responders and offering them food, water and a place to wash the ash off their skin. That continued for weeks.
“It was nice to see that, because it made you feel good that you were able to do something for them,” he said. “Because otherwise we were just bystanders watching. There was nothing we could do.”
The headquarters was responsible for printing Jehovah’s Witness reading material, including a regular magazine. It was just luck, McGinnis reckons, that the most recent issue dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder, and could be distributed amongst those hunkering down in their buildings.
Previously, McGinnis’ work knocking on doors to spread the word of God largely centered on religious education. But after 9/11, with New Yorkers in desperate need of comfort, that shifted.
“Our primary focus was a message of comfort and hope,” he said.
It’s the same situation now, in the pandemic, when McGinnis described similar emotions beginning to pop up locally — feelings of fear, stress and even anger.
“In that 20 years, we kind of got back into our old teaching style, trying to teach people the scriptures and covering various bible topics. But during the pandemic, the focus has really been just on trying to get people to cope.”
This Saturday, the Veterans Memorial Museum in Chehalis will host an event to remember the tragedy and honor all veterans, starting at 1 p.m.